Technique and Craft—aphorisms and insights by Paul Raymond Martin
Every memorable character has a wart. I live with the people I create and it has always made my essential loneliness less keen. --Carson
McCullers, author of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter)
When I’m writing about myself, I think about myself as a character. There is a ton of stuff going on in my life that I don’t write about. If I need to
write that stuff down, I write about myself in my diary- -David Sedaris, author of Me Talk Pretty One Day
I have tried every device I know to breathe life into my characters, for there is little fiction more rewarding than to see real people on the page.
Your most engaging characters will rise from the dust and detritus of personal experience. An attentive writer is midwife, nanny, uncle and
undertaker to the story’s characters. Study ordinary people in order to create extraordinary characters. Main characters must act, not be acted on.
Use as few characters as possible. Save the others for telling their own stories. Every character changes the story. Every story changes the character.
It has been said, “Fiction is life dressed up for a party.” And the writer controls the guest list. In order for the characters to speak, the writer must remain silent.
The sins of the writers are visited upon the writer’s characters. Each character must act in accord with his or her nature, not the writer’s.
Define your characters carefully, for they in turn will define the depth of your work. Characters are nothing until your readers create them.
Like everyday folks, characters must be in enough pain to make a change in their lives. Develop empathy toward others in your everyday life. You’ll
need it to develop characters in your writing life. Even in a short story, time must pass for characters to change believably. Develop your main
character as someone with whom you would enjoy spending a great deal of time—because you will. Tell how a character feels, and you’ve given
your readers a fact. Show how a character feels, and you’ve given your readers an emotion.
Characters Do the Darndest Things
Every day you see people doing or saying the strangest things. Jot down these incidents in your notebook, and elaborate upon them later. This
will log character traits in your brain, so they are more apt to come to mind when needed. For example, imagine a character who: empties the
toaster of crumbs every Monday morning; cleans the cutting wheel of the electric can opener once a week because it’s”the dirtiest quarter
inch in your kitchen”; visits a different card shop each day to read the greetings cards; names his son Sharon, after the steel mill town in Pennsylvania;
tugs at one sleeve because that arm is slightly longer than the other; telephones her son to remind him again how difficult he birth was for her;
stands on tiptoes in family photos to appear taller; vacuums the attic.
Who wants to write—or read—about ordinary characters? Make yours original by absorbing the people around you. Well-drawn characters carry
emotional and psychological baggage.
Characters disdain in others what they cannot abide in themselves—just like people do.
In most stories, the antagonist writes the problem; the protagonist writes the resolution. The most difficult decisions for characters are those
in which each alternative promises both good and bad outcomes.
Characters’ behavior follows a pattern: They feel, they think, they act—though sometimes they skip the second part. Readers will like a character
for the character’s strengths. Readers will embrace a character for the character’s weaknesses. Your character’s way of thinking, as well as the
thoughts themselves, help to define your character. From time to time, let the reader sneak a peek into the character’s thought process.
If you don’t love your protagonist, neither will the reader. Mistakes, flaws and contradictions make characters three dimensional.
During dialogue and internal monologues, provide your characters with “stage business”—trivial but distinctive actions, e.g., adjusting the blinds,
browsing through a magazine, or retying boot laces. You, as the writer, must know exactly how each character feels, even if the character doesn’t.
Even the most cerebral of characters are at their most endearing when they act on the basis of emotion rather than intellect. You don’t have to like
every character you create. You shouldn’t, in fact. But you must be awfully curious about them. Avoid thumbnail sketches of characters. Let readers
come to know your characters gradually, just as in real life. A character’s physical appearance may not be important to the plot, but it always important
to the reader. Still waters may run deep, but still characters are just still. In fiction there are no selfless acts: Even the most altruistic character acts as
he or she must in order to feel good and to be at peace. Readers are interested in people: what happens to them, how they think and feel, what they do.
Everything else is decorative. You may love your characters. You may hate your characters. But you may not feel indifferent toward your characters.
Create each character in your head, then give just enough information for your reader to do the same. Be cruel to your characters. Push them until
they absolutely must take action. The writer must know each character’s ruling passion and allow the reader to discover it. Characters who have lived
well and fully before the story begins are more likely to grab the reader’s interest. When choosing a point-of-view character, ask yourself, “Who is the
reader supposed to be?” Help the reader distinguish between your characters by showing not only what the characters own, but how they treat their
possessions. Many readers identify so strongly with the point-of-view character that they will argue with other characters, even as they read. You should
be able to answer any questions about your main characters. By the end of the story, so should the reader. The reader should know the main characters
well enough to carry on the storyline even after the story has ended. Readers relate to characters who are trying to make their lives better—especially
in the face of a setback.
The more opinionated the characters, the more potential for conflict. The character may or may not play fair, but she never argues fair. How characters
choose to spend their time shows their true priorities. Unlike people in real life, characters never just go through the motions. Fictional characters always
act with purpose.
In a phrase or two, identify each character’s defining persona—that which sets the character apart and creates a mental image. Each character in a scene
must want something. Otherwise, the character has no business appearing in the scene. Secondary characters work with or against the protagonist. There
are no neutral characters. A character’s deeds will reveal who he is more powerfully than his words. Each character makes his fictional world a little better
or a little poorer for having been a part of it. The biggest challenges for a character include risking everything she has worked to achieve, especially love,
and risking the lives of those she loves, especially children. Imagine what a cardboard character would say or do. Now write something altogether different.
Think of your characters as moving in a force field—being pulled this way and that as they move towards their respective goals. No character is altogether
good nor altogether evil. Show the good guy’s bad side and the bad guy’s good side. Secondary characters are the screwdrivers of fiction: infinitely
versatile in putting things together.
The situation comes first. The characters—always flat and unfeatured, to begin with—come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind,
I begin to narrate —Stephen King.
We must have a weak spot or two in a character before we can love it much. If your characters are having more fun than you are, you’re on the right track.
Your main character’s ability to solve problems should be hampered, but the task not made impossible, by his or her frailties. Through story events, allow
your characters to discover in themselves the talents and strengths they need to resolve their problems. In fiction as in real life, characters are partly right
and partly wrong about most things.
Just for fun—or for effect—name a character after a musical instrument or a piece of furniture or a fruit or vegetable. Good characters have their
weaknesses; evil characters have their strengths. And both have their reasons. A character’s greatest weakness, cast in different circumstances, becomes
the character’s greatest strength. How might your view-point character react to his or her reflection in a window or display case? Characters take on different
roles in different relationships, just as people do in real life. In developing your characters, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The worse things
get for your hero or heroine, the sweeter the triumph for your readers. Most readers identify with the first characters they encounter. Introduce your readers
to the main character first and to the secondary characters later. Characters must be more starkly defined than people in real life. And their situations
Plot gets readers involved; characterization makes them care. What might you find in your main character’s trash can at work? The trash can at home?
In the refrigerator? Glove compartment? Medicine cabinet, night stand, junk drawers? Pocket or purse? A character’s living space should complement
the character’s personality, the way a bit of blue in a wall hanging picks up the blue in a bedspread or drape. The first few details that come to mind to
describe a character may do for a start, but don’t stop there. Keep picturing the character until you discover more vivid distinctions. Put you characters
in a situation outside the present story. If they continue to interact, you know your characters. Know the character, and you’ll know the character’s story.
In the badest stories, the main character overcomes not only an adversary, but a weakness of self as well. Character traits are to fiction as caricatures
are to political cartoons. You can learn a lot about character by listening to the way the character talks about enemies—and even more from the way the
character talks about friends. In fiction, as in real life, the last person to understand something is the first person to explain it to everybody else.
Every memorable character has a wart, of sorts. During the writing process, give each main character a temporary name describing that character’s
primary feature. The most interesting situations are seldom what they seem to be, and the most interesting characters are seldom who they seem to be.